Acne made me miserable. Then I learned how to wage war on the blobs

    10 December 2015

    The first time I tried on my wedding dress I stared in the mirror and fought back the tears. It’s a moment that every girl is supposed to cherish twirling around in white and feeling gorgeous but I couldn’t wait to take shelter from my own reflection.

    I don’t mean to exaggerate or sound ungrateful — most days I am content with the way I look. But I have (what most people would consider to be mild) acne on my cheeks and on my jawline. Most of it can be hidden with concealer, foundation and powder. But there is only so much of your skin you can conceal.

    I bought my wedding dress at the end of a stressful holiday where I was exhausted, hungover and spotty and the forced ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ from the shop assistant only made me feel worse.

    I could not get the whine of self-pity out of my head. ‘I’m 28! I’m supposed to be over the awkward teenage years! Who dreams of being a spotty bride?’

    As a teenager and at university I would have the odd break-out, like many people. Soon enough, though, the spots would clear up. But, for some unfathomable reason, when I turned 24 I developed acne. I didn’t really notice it until a beautician once asked me, during a bikini wax, if my spots ‘got me down’. I returned home and did the mature and constructive thing: I cried and told my mum.

    On her advice I went to see my GP. At first I was prescribed the contraception pill but I felt uncomfortable taking it and stopped. I was then offered a course of Doxycycline, which I took only for the acne to return about a year later. It has remained with me ever since.

    My skin had become a bit like a game of whack-a-mole; every time one spot disappeared another popped up on a fresh part of my face. I would lie awake at night feeling depressed and utterly powerless. I felt like I was in an extremely tedious ITV2 documentary — The Secret Diary of an Acne Victim.

    It produced hours of futile internet research. One article, though, gave me hope. It began:

    ‘If there’s something I’ve learned during several years of helping acne patients, it’s how utterly confused many are.’

    ‘Amen, brother!’ I snivelled.

    ‘Science in the past decade has quite conclusively shown that every single pimple starts with inflammatory damage to sebum, or sebum oxidation. Everything else you may have heard that causes acne, things like diet, stress, hormones and what not, only create conditions for sebum oxidation to happen.’

    So, instead of trying to stop the acne, I set about preventing the conditions that would cause it. And it seemed to work. (Though later I discovered that one or two of my measures may have been more placebo than cure — but more of that below.)

    The key for me was to attack the conditions for creating acne rather than attacking my skin. This is what I found:

    1) Diet: While a cheesy lasagne is lovely comfort food in the winter months, it certainly means I am more likely to wake up with spots.

    I had a go at cutting out cheese made from cow’s milk, especially when cooked and greasified, and I definitely noticed a positive difference.

    It pains me to add that cutting out that big glass of Rioja to accompany the lovely lasagne has helped a great deal. Skipping midweek wine o’clock is definitely worth a shot.

    2) Manuka honey: As advocated by Scarlett Johansson. If you can see the first signs of the unwelcome pimple settling in and making itself at home, lobbing a dollop of Manuka on top of it seemed to encourage a faster departure.

    I applied it before bed and left it on overnight. It is meant to speed up the process of drying out the pimple without drying out your skin.

    3) Skin care: Find out what works for you and stick with it, but the golden rule is less is more.

    I use a very gentle exfoliator before bed every evening. The key for women is to ensure every inch of make-up is removed. I use a mild cleanser before exfoliation and wipe until my flannel or cotton pads stays white.

    On the advice of a fellow acne victim, I have stopped using moisturiser at night. The following morning I just apply a day cream before a mineral-based foundation.

    A very kind make-up artist recommended this and as a topical aid it’s definitely the most effective I have used so far. Other topical treatments can sometimes make your skin feel like it is burning.

    4) Common sense: The obvious but essential addition here is drinking plenty of water and getting plenty of sleep. It’s a false economy to spend hundreds on beauty products when you’re not taking advantage of what is available gratis.

    I know what you’re thinking. Where’s the scientific evidence for all your weird and wonderful ideas, love?

    Dr Sam Bunting, a London-based cosmetic dermatologist, had a mixed reaction to my experiences.

    Diet alone, she said, was unlikely to be the cause of acne. But she did warn against a high intake of dairy and refined carbs.

    ‘Research increasingly suggests that certain foodstuffs might encourage a disease flare, by creating a pro-inflammatory state in the body. I urge patients to keep refined carbohydrates to a minimum for this reason. I also recommend limiting dairy intake as it may contain hormones that act on oil-producing sebaceous glands and encourage breakouts. So a creamy pasta dish is not the best choice of supper in the acne-prone.’

    On that glass of Rioja, Dr Bunting said she was ‘not aware of a direct association between alcohol consumption and acne’, but that ‘drinking behaviour frequently delivers a high sugar load — a vodka and cranberry juice contains as much as seven teaspoons of sugar. This,’ she said, ‘might well contribute to a breakout in someone who’s predisposed.’

    But the doctor is not convinced by the power of Manuka honey. Despite what many internet discussion boards tell you, she said, there is no evidence to suggest that it helps to combat acne.

    ‘While Manuka honey possesses some anti-inflammatory properties, there is no proper evidence for its use in acne — acne is a complex disorder that requires multiple ingredients to tackle it at critical points in the pathway to developing blemishes. I’d recommend sticking to combinations of well-substantiated, safe ingredients that work to prevent blemishes by unclogging pores like retinoids and are proven to treat active blemishes like benzoyl peroxide.’

    I apologise for having added to the suffocating abundance of online articles on how to cure blemishes. Everyone is different, but understanding what sets the scene for those angry red blobs to arrive, is, I have discovered, an essential tactic in winning the war on acne.